By Laurel Jarombek
President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Alaska may be historic in that he is the first sitting president to make a trip to the Arctic Circle, but whether his words and actions there will change the course of history is far less certain. His visit coincided with the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic (GLACIER), a State Department-sponsored event addressing the most critical issues facing the Arctic and attended by representatives from 20 countries. The president’s closing remarks at GLACIER and the tone of his three-day visit hit important notes about the high stakes of climate change in the Arctic.
Meanwhile, a host of economic and political issues remain unresolved in this increasingly significant region. There is an unfortunate precedent in American and global politics of pushing slow-burning problems aside when confronted with more immediate and high-profile dangers and opportunities. Obama and his successors may not be able to resist focusing on geopolitical issues and economic potential in the Arctic at the expense of the environment, at least in practice.
As Obama discussed in his speech, warming temperatures allow permafrost to thaw, threatening homes and infrastructure; rising oceans may soon pull entire villages underwater; changing patterns of fish migration endanger the livelihoods of fishing communities; and the increasing prevalence of wildfires poses a constant problem for residents and animal habitats alike. The rest of the visit emphasized these urgent issues, as the president visited the melting Exit Glacier area of Alaska and met with indigenous and local leaders to discuss environmental challenges.
The environment has repeatedly suffered in the name of economic development. The short-term gains of industry can seem to outweigh environmental consequences, which are slower to manifest and initially more difficult to detect. Obama proposed a change: “Let’s prove that we care about [our grandchildren] and their long-term futures, not just short-term political expediency.”
The trouble is Alaska’s Chukchi Sea is home to perhaps the United States’ second-largest offshore oil source after the Gulf of Mexico. Particularly due to the perceived unreliable and unstable nature of many oil-exporting nations, the political will in favor of domestic oil production is strong. Furthermore, amid the fall in global oil prices and the tapering of production in Alaska’s established drilling sites, the state’s oil-dependent economy could benefit in the short term from further resource extraction. Drilling in the harsh conditions of the Arctic, however, is particularly dangerous. A Department of the Interior report on Alaskan offshore drilling predicted a 75 percent chance of at least one large oil spill occurring within the next 77 years, and estimated 800 “small spills” would occur within that time frame. The environmental cost is heavy indeed.
The conflict between oil and the environment is not only a future concern. The Obama administration was widely accused of hypocrisy when it approved Shell’s bid to expand its offshore drilling operations in the Arctic just two weeks before the climate change-themed Alaska trip. In response, Secretary of State John Kerry told the Huffington Post it’s best to allow the drilling “because we’re not going to suddenly be weaned from oil…in terms of our efforts to begin the move to a de-carbonized economy, it’s going to take 20, 30, 40 years.”
Replacing oil with clean energy and diversifying Alaska’s economy will require massive overhauls of existing systems, however, and publicizing the dangers of climate change or making small-change investments in renewable resources does not make up for pursuing new drilling opportunities. For the administration, while environmental concerns are important, they have not impeded oil production, in Alaska or anywhere.
Another issue at stake is the establishment of Arctic shipping routes and ports, particularly as the ocean’s ice melts more and more during the summer months. Russia has plans to expand passage in its Northern Sea Route spanning Europe and Asia, for which it charges users a fee to cover the costs of ice navigation. Russia already has a fleet of 40 icebreakers to the United States’ two, and the nation has been building up its military presence to protect its economic and territorial interests.
Yet especially after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its neighbors are on edge about its expansionist aims. In a trip last week to Iceland, the U.K., and Norway, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work has been discussing Arctic security with Northern European countries. Norway’s increased participation in NATO and Sweden’s flirtation with joining the alliance reflect increased wariness of Russian intentions, as both countries have previously had cooperative relationships with Russia. The threat of Russian aggression, imagined or not, is a hot-button geopolitical issue that is already factoring heavily into discussions about the Arctic.
China has also been trying to enhance its role in the Arctic. Although not an Arctic nation, China already owns an icebreaker and has plans to obtain a second. The nation has also been pursuing bilateral agreements with Iceland on a range of Arctic issues in order to establish a foothold in the region. During Obama’s visit, Chinese warships entered American territorial waters, marking the first time the Chinese navy approached Alaska. The increasing activity of players as significant as China and Russia will not be ignored in the U.S. Each of these countries is frequently declared to be America’s greatest rival, and no U.S. president is likely to resist taking steps to stay ahead of either of them militarily and economically.
The Arctic is not a geopolitical free-for-all, however; the Arctic Council was established in 1996 as a forum for countries with territory in the region to discuss critical issues. The U.S. recently assumed the rotating chairmanship of the organization, which it will hold until 2017. Through the Council, there is a strong institutional precedent for cooperating on mutually beneficial regulations and resolving disputes diplomatically. The Arctic Council does not have inherent governing authority, however; it functions mainly as a forum for cooperation, so the issues it addresses and the decisions it makes must be initiated and agreed upon by member states. The resolution of environmental challenges therefore depends on the members’ political will.
Beginning with the decisions of the Arctic Council, Arctic governance is beginning to take form. The U.S. must take into account other major powers’ inevitable pursuit of their own interests in its own Arctic strategy, and avoid the temptation of a race to militarization or resource extraction. Rather than trying to counter the activities of Russia, China, or any other country in the region, in the future the U.S. needs to concentrate on curtailing the long-term environmental impacts and promoting economic sustainability in Arctic development. Obama made an important step by putting environmental issues front and center at GLACIER and throughout his Alaska visit, but talk alone will not solve these problems. The Arctic region’s economic potential or the latest exploits of geopolitical foes are not excuses to sideline an issue that will wreak as much havoc as climate change.
Laurel Jarombek is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.